What I can and cannot see has not changed very much in the last fifty years, writes Professor Hannah Thompson. Apart from the usual age-related variations, my sight now is pretty much the same as it was when I was born. But the way I talk about my sight has evolved.
When I was a child I used ‘partially sighted’ or the legalistic ‘registered blind’. When I became aware of the social model of disability, I used ‘visually impaired’. And now I prefer ‘partially blind’. I have decided to reject phrases like ‘partially sighted’ and ‘visually impaired’ because they imply that it is more desirable to be sighted than to be blind. They use a vocabulary of lack to suggest that I am not sighted enough. On the other hand, ‘partially blind’ playfully flips this blind / sighted hierarchy to suggest that blindness is the ideal state I should compare myself with and aspire to. I am not yet blind enough. I have not yet achieved full blindness.
Similarly, I like to describe people who depend on vision as ‘non-blind’ rather than ‘sighted’ because this unexpected formulation associates sightedness with negativity. It reveals the biases of language and makes us question our unspoken assumptions.
Questioning the words we use reminds us that language choices can change how we feel about ourselves and other people. Language is never a neutral way of conveying information. The language we use unwittingly reveals our attitudes and prejudices. If you are unsure how someone likes to be described, just ask them. Everyone has a preference, and it is always better to discuss language choices openly and be ready to make and learn from mistakes.
At the Sensational Museum, we are compiling a glossary and inclusive language guide to help us understand how language can change the way we think about things. We want to use language in ways that are inclusive. We want to encourage thoughtful language use. We do not want to perpetuate out-dated or ableist ways of describing people. Nor do we want to alienate our audiences by using language in unfamiliar ways. We want to remove the anxiety that often exists around the language of disability.
When we feel uncomfortable about a concept, it is tempting to avoid saying it. This can lead to euphemisms or elaborate workarounds. But avoiding a word can create a taboo around it. If you feel uncomfortable describing me as ‘blind’ is that because you think that ‘blindness’ is undesirable or that I might take ‘blind’ as an insult? Do you prefer ‘visually impaired’ or ‘partially sighted’ because these phrases feel like a gentler or more subtle way of describing disability without naming it as such?
Our glossary will always be a work in progress because language is always evolving.
We’d love to hear about your experiences of language, and any questions or thought you have.